Civic space is shrinking, yet civil society is not the enemy

By Lysa JohnSecretary-General, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation 1

Global collaboration is new. It is also under threat. That puts our greatest chance at working together to protect people and planet – as encompassed in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – in jeopardy.

This blog marks Civil Society Days hosted by the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate and the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment.


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the UN member states in 2015, represent an ambitious, but achievable, agenda to make the world better. Importantly, they are a reminder that world leaders have agreed on common goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. In a remarkable shift in international public policy, they have pledged to ‘leave no one behind’ in this effort, thereby committing themselves not just to work together, but also to work for the benefit of all people irrespective of who they are or where they come from.

The values that underpin our ability to generate an internationally co-ordinated response to the sustainable development challenge are, however, increasingly being questioned, undermined and even overruled by leaders who promote narrow, self-serving interpretations of national interest. Report after report from civil society organisations across the globe highlight what we have called in our State of Civil Society report this year a trend towards “presidential sovereignty” that aims to undermine or override the mandate of constitutions, national rights preserving institutions and international agreements.

Even more alarming are the rising reports of attacks on, and murders of, human rights defenders. Last year – 2018 – was the deadliest 12 months for human rights defenders since the UN began monitoring the challenges they face; 321 such defenders were killed in 27 countries. Their murders were directly caused by the work they do. This should not be happening.

Few, if any, states can meet the SDGs alone. It is concerning therefore that governments and other large organisations must be constantly reminded that civic action and participation is not an enemy to progress. Rather, they are vital to meeting the 2030 Agenda. Progress is not possible if governments, communities and civil society do not feel shared ownership in realising the SDGs.

If the global community is to survive and prosper, then governments must acknowledge that many of the challenges they and their nations face respect no borders, and that civil society is not the enemy. Civil society is their partner in the important mission embedded in the SDGs. Only by working together can we ensure our planet endures in a manner that maintains life and livelihoods for the 7 billion people who call it home.

In the lead up to Agenda 2030, civil society organisations worldwide played a key role in the consultations that helped us define the SDGs. We helped then, and our support is needed now, especially because civil society plays a critical role in ensuring that communities that are, or have been, left out of the development agenda are not ignored.

How so? Civil society organisations provide governments and other duty-bearing organisations with credible platforms to consult with communities on their specific development needs and priorities. Our ability to collect, disaggregate and analyse data that is grounded in the experience of citizens is critical to the work needed to measure real progress on the SDGs, along with our essential watchdog role. In addition, our active efforts towards dispute and conflict resolution across the world are vital to the social cohesion and co-operation needed to achieve development outcomes.

In stark contrast to the ambition of the SDGs, findings from the CIVICUS Monitor show that the human rights defenders facing the strongest barriers are those defending the rights of traditionally excluded groups. Often these barriers are set up by governments and other powerful vested interests, such as multinational corporate entities. Not even cyberspace – once touted as the great democratising platform – is exempt.

The closing space for civil society is a global problem and, very obviously, actions such as these slow down attaining the SDGs. If we are, in fact, to achieve the SDGs on time, the global community needs to do more to acknowledge the role civil society plays in holding governments and other large entities accountable for their promises, and to guarantee civil society’s ability to do this unhindered.

National SDG actions must include local mechanisms that protect and expand the space for civil society organisations to operate in accordance with internationally agreed principles and frameworks, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders that aims to protect the work of civil society organisations and their members.

Governments must ensure that civil society organisations have the security of explicit and resourced measures that allow them to do their work unimpeded. Importantly, groups most at risk of marginalisation need targeted measures to ensure that they are consulted and heard and are able to access deliberate ongoing support through financing and capacity building.

These measures also include defining ways to strengthen civil society’s ability to mobilise and to engage in SDG-related review processes at national, regional and global levels. Civil society must be enabled to participate actively and meaningfully in developing the reports submitted to the international community via their country’s Voluntary National Reviews, which are progress reviews that each UN member state is encouraged to undertake to explain its progress towards reaching the SDGs.

Stronger partnerships between civil society organisations and other stakeholders vital to SDG progress, such as the media, local governments and parliamentarians, benefit our shared march towards realising the SDGs across the world. They must be encouraged, strengthened and leveraged.

To this end, fora such as the Open Government Partnership can and must be used to encourage meaningful citizen and civil society engagement in reform. This partnership is a multilateral initiative to secure concrete commitments from national and subnational governments to promote open government, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

Furthermore, Human Rights treaty bodies and other independent expert mechanisms are integral to the achievement of the SDGs. Governments must prioritise securing adequate funding for the human rights pillar of the United Nations as part of their commitment to the 2030 Agenda since promoting and protecting human rights are indispensable to achieving development, peace and security.

These steps, and many more, will go a long way in ensuring that civil society is an essential partner on the path to achieving a sustainable future for humanity and the planet. Only with such action and intent by communities and citizens everywhere will the SDGs be met.

1.CIVICUS is a global alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. Founded in 1993, the alliance today has members in 175 countries, with its headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa.